Introducing Waxing the Gospel, CD 3

ARCH_1009So, as we said last week, Waxing the Gospel was originally a CD dedicated to the recordings of evangelist Ira D. Sankey. But then we decided to include the discs of his partner, Dwight L. Moody. And then the Sankey Quartette cylinders got added. Then we decided that the full commercial context was necessary. Now we had two discs.

The genesis for CD 3 came one day when our friend (now co-producer) Michael Devecka called. When we told him what we were working on, he said, “I’ve got a bunch of religious home recordings, if you’re interested in those.” He confessed he didn’t know anything about them but that several looked pretty fascinating. Indeed, they were. Spurred on by only the faintest of clues still included in the case that held the brown wax cylinders just as Mike had bought them, we undertook a significant research journey through old newspapers, genealogy websites, and archives to figure out what his records were.

The whole detective story is told in detail in the 408 pages of Waxing the Gospel, but in short: Mike’s cylinders were made by an amateur phonograph recordist named Henry A. Heath, a Manhattan optician, during the 1897 annual camp meeting at Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Heath captured many major stars and shining lights of Victorian-era Christian evangelism during the week-long schedule of events at the camp. He took them home to Jersey City and played them at his YMCA’s rescue mission and at other church events around Hudson County in a program he called “Echoes of Ocean Grove.” Clearly, Mr. Heath saw the phonograph as a tool for bringing comfort to the needy and spreading the Word in a novel way.

This find is nothing short of historic, and we know you’ll agree when you read the complete story and listen to the tracks in full. These tracks take about half of the third CD, while the second half is given over to vernacular recordings of sacred material from the 1890s: some by other church organizations and ministers in quasi-public settings, and others by ordinary people who show us 120 years later the way in which they waxed their faith privately, surrounded by family and friends.

Maybe you didn’t realize that the early phonographs had the ability both to play pre-recorded wax cylinders and to record on blank cylinders? Early adopters were enterprising sorts, eager to dive into the new technology. Just like with Recordio discs, reel-to-reel machines, and cassette decks in generations past, our ancestors in the 1890s experimented with recording and left to us a treasure chest of weird and wonderful sounds. Sometimes there are technical problems like wow and flutter or over-modulation or someone getting cut off, but they all have their charm and tell us things about the past that are not reducible to printed accounts. Don’t worry if you can’t catch all of the words–we’ve included full transcriptions of all selections in the book.

You can hear samples on our website. Let’s see what’s in store:

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Introducing Waxing the Gospel, CD 2


Moody & Sankey returning to the US after their phenomenally successful campaign in Britain, 1873-75. Both gentlemen made records in the 1890s. (Library of Congress)

The middle CD of Waxing the Gospel is actually where the project began more than a decade ago. Our friend, “Cylinder Doctor” Michael Khanchalian, an avid collector of the extremely rare cylinders of evangelist Ira D. Sankey, asked us if we would be interested in issuing a collection of Sankeys. Little did we know when we set out on what seemed a simple and straightforward project that it would grow into such a thoroughly documented and expansive audio overview of sacred phonograms from the dawn of recording. CD 2 is a collection of celebrity sacred recordings.

But what is a “celebrity recording”? It’s a phonogram (i.e., disc, cylinder, or other type of recording) that is marketed and sold more for who made it than for the contents on it. Then as now, people have wanted to hear the voices of famous individuals. But there were almost always problems: either records of this sort were inferior specimens made by startup companies, or the celebrities themselves—neophytes to the recording process—gave poor performances, or they were distributed in tiny quantities, making them especially rare. The 32 selections here demonstrate these challenges.

For instance, how rare can it get? When Prof. John R. Sweney (music director at Ocean Grove and elsewhere, composer of “Beulah Land”) was in Washington in April 1892, Columbia made souvenir records of the famous choral leader. Probably no more than a handful were made, and the company would have used them as a way to attract more customers into their parlor. The Sweney cylinders were never issued commercially. We had the good fortune of meeting noted folklorist Joe Hickerson, the great-grandson of Sweney, and it was only through him that we were able to procure transfers of the Sweney records that had passed down in the family.

There are six different artists here: Sweney, the United States Marine Band, Dwight L. Moody, Ira D. Sankey, the Sankey Quartette, and the chimes of Trinity Church (Manhattan). All of these are prize-worthy trophies that collectors of early records dream about. Below is the tracklist and some commentary. Over on our website you can hear the sound samples.

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Introducing Waxing the Gospel, CD 1


ARCH_1009You may have heard us mention our upcoming album, but now it’s time to start filling you in with details. Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph, 1890-1900 is unlike any other historical reissue album you’ve seen before. With a 408-page book and nearly four hours of audio on three CDs, Waxing the Gospel is the most in-depth look at the dawn of the recording industry ever issued. The lens through which we peer is the earliest sacred recordings and the evangelical traditions that promulgated them, but the story is as much about brown wax as it is about the ministry of Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey.

Moody and Sankey “started the fire” . . . they were the Beatles of the 1870s, preaching and singing their saving word to millions in Great Britain and America. They and their compeers gave birth to a type of hymn called “gospel songs,” which were as popular in the late Victorian era among the masses as anything put out today by Rihanna or Beyonce. People embraced the gospel songs as personal anthems, stories of self-realization and awakening. They were so much part of the fabric of American culture that when the early industry started dabbling with a sacred repertoire, these were the pieces the record companies turned to. But as our extensive essay lays out, it didn’t happen immediately. At first the thought was, “Everybody has the hymnals and can sing the gospel hymns themselves, so why would they want records of them?” The story here is of how quickly our ancestors made the infant phonograph a tool of reiteration and remembering.

Our album is divided into three areas, with one CD devoted to each: commercial recordings, celebrity recordings, and vernacular recordings. The record companies and gospel practitioners were operating in several different ways throughout the 1890s and we zoom in to focus on what makes each area special. Today we are unveiling the contents of CD 1, the commercial recordings. Below are the list and some commentary. Over on our website you can hear the sound samples. Let’s get started!

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Refresh > Repress

We’re currently staging a new-account drive at our website, –trying to get old and new customers alike to visit our new site and sign up for accounts. To sweeten the deal, we’ve got a killer deal on the newly remastered edition of our very first CD, Real Ragtime: Disc Recordings from Its Heyday. It’s like we’re starting all over again, but this is so, so much better.

Running your own shop is a blessing and a curse, as we all know. When it comes to putting out a product like our CDs, the blessing is that you have full control over the production and can exact your own creative vision. That’s the curse too: you just can’t stop trying to make it better. Real Ragtime has been out in four different audio versions. The first came in 1998 and was on CD-R, as we were just getting started. The second was a professionally manufactured CD, done over in 1999. In 2001, David Wondrich wrote about that CD in The New York Times and brought it a good deal of attention. Then in 2005, we totally revamped the CD, subbing in one track for another and adding a bonus track. The catalog number morphed from ARCH 1001 to ARCH 1001A, the “A” representing the altered playlist from the previous editions and newly designed and expanded notes.

The third, and final, cover to Real Ragtime

Now, after more than 10 years since the last edition, we have pressed yet another and revisited the sound. And here’s why: We’re committed to REFRESHING the product, not simply REPRESSING it. It’s not that we want to make customers buy the same title over and over again; rather, it’s that we want to keep it in print, and if we are making that commitment, we want it to be the best it can possibly be. Given the technical advances of the last 15 years, as well as our improved skills, this often means starting from scratch.

This is our M.O. going forward, and that’s why we try to provide upgrade pricing for loyal customers. Whenever you feel grumpy about a record label continually issuing “anniversary editions” of one of your old favorites, remember that they face the same question: either give a catalog item a facelift and a new life or delete it from the catalog. While it’s easy to assume that an album will just always “be available,” it isn’t always feasible to keep it in print.

So how is Real Ragtime better, sonically speaking?

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African-American Camp Meeting Hymns

The Fisk Jubilee Singers began touring in 1871 to raise money for their new university, drawing large crowds and public acclaim for their studied take on the spirituals their people had developed and sung during slavery. In other places outside prim recital halls, however, widespread enthusiasm for these relics of black culture was growing as well.

New York Sun, August 31, 1879

New York Sun, August 31, 1879

The attached pdf comes from The New York Sun from August 31, 1879 and gives a report of a “grove meeting” in New Jersey and a detailed analysis of the hymns sung by the black participants. We learn, among other things, that this is an annual affair, aimed—just like the Fisk tours—at generating funds for the local church, and that the white folks are the primary audience for whom it is performed. There are connoisseurs among them.

It’s fascinating to read this “ethnographic” account of African-American life and culture. The writer does seem to appreciate the art, but at the same time, one detects a patronizing note accompanying his gaze. For our money, though, it’s always better to see original documents such as this rather than to rely on secondary “overview” sources that try to characterize history broadly. Give it a whirl and see what you think.

Read the full article: New York Sun, August 31, 1879

Sophie Tucker Anniversary

Sophie Tucker's portrait in the April 1911 Edison Phonograph Monthly (Archeophone Records Collection)

Sophie Tucker’s portrait in the April 1911 Edison Phonograph Monthly (Archeophone Records Collection)

Fifty years ago today we lost the biggest entertainer in the world, Sonya Kalish Abuza, a.k.a., Sophie Tucker. A veteran of the stage, screen, and phonograph, her sixty-year career began during the era of Edison’s wax cylinders, spanned the era of the microgroove LP, and concluded at the time the Beatles were beginning their “mature” phase. By the time she got sick in late 1965, Tucker was seen by the youth as a relic of their parents’ generation, but her appearances on Ed Sullivan and the omnipresence of her Mercury LPs and her autobiography, Some of These Days, meant she was never out of sight and was a force to be reckoned with one way or another.

The BBC has put together an appreciation that you can read and listen to here: We were interviewed for the piece and are happy to report that presenter William Kremer did a nice job. One key theme he emphasized was race relations. The two incidents repeated here are her promotion of songwriter Shelton Brooks and her defense of Bill Robinson, the dancer known as Bojangles. The story about Brooks goes this way: Sophie’s maid was friends with Brooks and sought to get him an audience with her employer. One night she sneaked him into Sophie’s dressing room, where he presented her with his new song, “Some of These Days,” which went on to become her signature piece. That must have been about 1910. The other story involves a party Sophie threw for her sister in the ’20s at a fancy hall in New York: when the doorman insisted Robinson could only enter through the back door, Tucker declared the front door to be closed and marched everyone through the back door.

The catalogue entry for the original recording  of "Some of these Days" in the April 1911 Edison Phonograph Monthly (Archeophone Records Collection)

The catalogue entry for the original recording of “Some of these Days” in the April 1911 Edison Phonograph Monthly (Archeophone Records Collection)

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“Nobody” as Trailblazing Comedy

Black History Month got off to a good start for lovers of acoustic sound when Vulture named “The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy” this week. There in pole position was “Nobody” by Bert Williams from 1906. The compilers note that they weren’t looking for “one-liners” necessarily, as much as for “a discrete moment of comedy.” They contend that Bert’s performance of “Nobody” gains its power from the tension between its upbeat musicality and its mournful lyrics. It seems a stretch to call the music “upbeat”—it’s fairly doleful throughout—but we’ll grant that the chorus has a certain whimsical flavor that adds irony to Bert’s lament. Of course, the biggest musical joke in the piece lies in the trombone swoops that imitate human wailing.

The label for the 1906 recording of Nobody (Archeophone Records Collection)

The label for the 1906 recording of Nobody (Archeophone Records Collection)

Vulture got it right by saying it’s the self-deprecation of the unfortunate loser that makes “Nobody” so funny. The fact that a black man would give comedic voice to his trials and tribulations, the indignities and put-upons suffered at the hands of others really was revolutionary. Williams was the highest paid African American (well, Caribbean by birth, actually) in show business and had more leeway in what he did on stage than others who looked like him. When he spoke-sang the words of “Nobody”—when he made those irresistible mugging faces and did his shuffling dance—he worked his way with laughter into the hearts of white Americans who may not have thought much about social equality. Lots of other people recorded the song—from Arthur Collins to Johnny Cash—and those versions aren’t as funny as Bert’s.

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